Welcome back to Sunday reading. Here is a piece by Joe Cortright describing the importance of storytelling in framing “Visions of a Future City“, Strong Towns.


In his Presidential Address to the American Economics Association two weeks ago, Nobelist Robert Shiller presented his thoughts on what he called “narrative economics.” Human beings are not the cold rational calculators they’re made out to be in traditional economic modeling. Instead, Shiller argued, human’s are hard-wired to visualize and understand the world through story-telling: We really ought to be called “Homo Narans.” That’s why getting the story right matters so much. If we have a story that centers on technology, vehicles and frenetic movement, we can remake our world in that image. If, instead, we have a story that embraces experience, and place and freedom, we’ll get a very different world.

Auckland was greatly influenced by the modernist concept of the city. This vision was so captivating it has become the default setting – the status quo.

In the recent history of the American city, General Motors’ famous Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair captured the imagination of Americans, and served as an iconic model of a new, auto-centric lifestyle that promised an end to traffic congestion and urban crowding. There’s no doubt that this image of a bright, mobile future appealed to a nation just recovering from the Great Depression. That image ultimately got reflected in policy–and pavement–with the enactment of the federal interstate highway program in the 1950s.

So what are today’s latest urban narratives? Cortright reports back from the Consumer Electronics Show and finds that not much has changed.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show–which is now the place for automobile companies to roll out their newest ideas, technologies and models–Ford presented its remake of the Futurama, which it called, “The City of Tomorrow”.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice that this is a road and vehicle-centered view of urban space. Cars dominate. Sure, there’s a sop thrown to biking, pedestrians and transit, but notice this: All of the pedestrians, and cyclists are shown traveling in parallel to the cars. Walking and biking are just alternative ways of doing the same thing one would do, if one only had a car.

But their are emerging counterpoints including this one by Samsung.

This other vision comes from Samsung, the Korea-based technology company.  They’ve been running a long form (60 second) television commercial called “A Perfect Day.” It follows the exploits of a half dozen kids–armed just with bikes, skateboards, and of course Samsung Galaxy smart phones–as they roam around New York City.  There’s a lot going on here. Watch the video and then let’s see if we can’t unpack the different—and in many ways radical—narrative it’s proposing.

Ultimately transport decisions are not based on cold rational calculations. Again, this is where the narrative come in. Konstantinos Dimopoulos, “Transport Isn’t Technology, It’s Politics“, How We Get to Next.

Deciding whether public transportation is required, or if environmentally friendlier tech should to be developed, ultimately comes down to politics and the people. It is us who will choose — democratically or through protest — whether we want to travel freely or stop at militarized borders, whether we want better public transportation or are fine with automobiles, traffic, and all the pollution that comes with them.

Technology alone will not provide us with miracle solutions. If we really want to achieve sustainable, efficient, fair, safe, and environmentally sensible ways of moving both things and ourselves around, we have to start thinking politically. We even have to question prevalent tendencies such as the privatization of mass transport, consider whether moving to hybrid private cars is wise, or discuss the moral dilemmas that arise in the design of self-driving vehicles.

Speaking of transport technology, here are some recent news stories about Uber.

Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber“, Susan J. Fowler.

When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers.

Laura Bliss, “Hailing an Uber Just Got Way More Political“, City Lab.

One could argue that hailing an Uber has always been something of a political act—by taking a ride, passengers “vote” for Uber’s policies and business model with their dollars, even if they’re not particularly aware of the implications. #DeleteUber may raise a certain level of public consciousness in regards to that fact. But as the landscape of urban mobility redraws along partisan lines, fresh arrivals to the anti-Uber camp should know this: The best way to support immigrants and low-income workers who could be exploited by a private transportation service isn’t by downloading a competitor’s app. Now, and always, the most radical statement is riding the bus. 

Dozens of cities are considering removing legacy motorway infrastructure that divide and degrade urban environments. Here is an update of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s top 10 list of “Freeways without futures“, CNU.ORG.

Communities across North America are facing a watershed moment in the history of our transportation infrastructure. With cities, citizens, and transportation officials all looking for alternatives to costly highway repair and expansion, these ten campaigns offer a roadmap to better health, equity, opportunity, and connectivity in every neighborhood, while reversing decades of decline and disinvestment.

Above all, these ten highways are opportunities for progress. Each one presents the chance to remove a blight from the physical, economic, and environmental health of urban communities. Their intended benefits have not justified the tragic consequences, but converting these highways into human-scaled streets offers a chance to begin repairing the damage. From Buffalo to San Francisco, these are the freeways without futures.

The Auckland Bike Challenge concludes this week. Here’s a good take on what it’s like cycle commuting in Auckland. Elisa, “Go by Bike Day 2017 – my experience!“, Elisa’s creation.

Broadway is a nightmare. This is where citybound buses converge and they could come three at a time. Wide footpaths are required outside the shops for the high volume of pedestrians. Then there are on-road parallel parking. There are a couple of pinch points where the footpath extends out onto the road, meaning the buses have to merge into the general traffic lane. Transport engineers, do let me know how we can make Broadway safer and more efficient!

Wow what a difference cycle lanes make! Suddenly I stopped being so nervous, my grasp on the brakes loosened and I started to enjoy myself. There is a psychological shift in perception when your needs are being met. When I use cycle lanes I think: my safety and comfort are being prioritised; there are people thinking and designing for vulnerable road users like myself. It reassures me and encourages me.

We’ve been covering the causes of the global housing crisis over last couple of years. This piece stands out as being particularly influential in shaping the pro-market housing supply response to the crisis.  John Mangin, “The New Exclusionary Zoning“, in Stanford Law & Policy Review.

For the first time in American history, it makes sense to talk about whole regions of the country “gentrifying”—whole metropolitan areas whose high housing costs have rendered them inhospitable to low-income families, who, along with solidly middle class families, also feeling the crunch, have been paying higher housing costs or migrating to low-housing cost (and low-wage) areas like Texas, Arizona, or North Carolina. Underlying both of these phenomena—high housing costs in the suburbs and high housing costs in the cities—is a relatively straightforward problem of supply and demand. A city’s ability to remain affordable depends most crucially on its ability to expand housing supply in the face of increased demand. Among the people who care most about high housing costs there is a lack of understanding of the main causes and the policy approaches that can address them. The central message of this Article is that the housing advocacy community—from the shoe-leather organizer to the academic theoretician—needs to abandon its reflexively anti-development sentiments and embrace an agenda that accepts and advocates for increased housing development of all types as a way to blunt rising housing costs in the country’s most expensive markets.

No argument here -> “For a growing chorus of urbanists, NIMBYism and land use restrictions are the culprit behind everything from growing income inequality to shrinking affordable housing, productivity, and innovation.” But Richard Florida in “Anatomy of a NIMBY“, CityLab, argues that it’s vital to understand neighbourhood opposition.

The crux of the California problem, the Monkkonen paper argues, is not the state’s restrictions on uber-high density building in and around urban centers, but the broader dependence on lower-density zoning across the board. Los Angeles may be a relatively dense city and metro (indeed, according to some basic measures, it is the densest metro in the country), but three-quarters of its residential land is devoted to relatively low-density single-family housing that only shelters half the city’s population.

To get beyond NIMBYism, we first must understand it. Neighborhood resistance isn’t just triggered by residents trying to prop up their home values or protect their neighborhoods from things they don’t like—it’s the product of policies that provide incentives toward homeownership and a regulatory system that encourages and prompts opposition.

What follows is a BINGO card of issues.

  • Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.
  • Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.
  • Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s “by-right” legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.
  • Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.

Lets return to one of the key arguments of Mangin who notes that cities are not longer the “growth machines” they once were.

Many of the country’s most desirable and most economically vibrant cities are no longer “Growth Machines.” They may be getting richer, and in that sense “growing,” but an emphasis on building housing and adding population is a thing of the past. Consequently, housing prices in these post-Growth Machine cities have risen much faster than the national average. The effect has been the same as in the exclusionary suburbs: The anti-development orientation of certain cities is turning them into preserves for the wealthy as housing costs increase beyond what lower-income families can afford to pay. The phenomenon deserves a similar name—the New Exclusionary Zoning.

Sluggish economic growth and productivity is something that is bewildering economists. Does the urban housing crisis, private indebtedness, and lack of access to cities contribute to the global malaise? I don’t know. Here is David Brook review of Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class. This century is broken”, The New York Times.

The hard part is that America has to become more dynamic and more protective — both at the same time. In the past, American reformers could at least count on the fact that they were working with a dynamic society that was always generating the energy required to solve the nation’s woes. But as Tyler Cowen demonstrates in his compelling new book, “The Complacent Class,” contemporary Americans have lost their mojo.

Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static. For example, Americans used to move a lot to seize opportunities and transform their lives. But the rate of Americans who are migrating across state lines has plummeted by 51 percent from the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.

Americans used to be entrepreneurial, but there has been a decline in start-ups as a share of all business activity over the last generation. Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history. The share of Americans under 30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s.

Americans tell themselves the old job-for-life model is over. But in fact Americans are switching jobs less than a generation ago, not more. The job reallocation rate — which measures employment turnover — is down by more than a quarter since 1990.

There are signs that America is less innovative. Accounting for population growth, Americans create 25 percent fewer major international patents than in 1999. There’s even less hunger to hit the open road. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. Now only half of Americans get a license by age 18.

That’s all for this week. Please add your links in the comments below.

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  1. The Complacent Country!; it seems clear that ‘the American century’ is receding into history real fast now. How much of the US’s entrepreneurial power has been founded on attracting all the world’s raw talent? It certainly is an important part of it, as any scan of the truly international roll-call of great American company founders show. That flow began to be restricted after 9-11, and now is being all but completely closed under Trump’s sclerotic nationalism. Access to the great US post-war university system is on a secular decline. Even tourism is contracting, none of these moves are what the extraordinary power of the US economy of the 20thC was founded on, so is there a new model? There’s no sign of it. Tariffs, walls, and war-mongering? So will that talent that stays in India, or Europe, or the Middle East, or Malaysia, or wherever, be able to build the next Apple or Google at home or elsewhere? Such an interesting question. What other facets of the American model are missing in these places? Is it the only model? If there is no America, and make no mistake the current is being dismantled with astonishing speed, will a new dynamic place rise to dominance? Is that possible in China? Or could a different pattern, a more multi-centred world be as dynamic [our best hope]?

    It’s clear that no matter even if neo-isolationism rises in the US and manages to minimise the worst of its likely economic and social self-harm, the globalised world that last century’s policies and technology gave rise to continues on, we are still hyper-connected, and the value of connectivity, on the planet as in cities, will still drive productivity…

    All empires end with complacency, looking back, is, after all, the easier view, especially from the top, and they all end by trying to maintain the military and political power their previous economic strength built, but after that economic strength has waned. Also these cycles seem to be accelerating. The American Empire seems to be crashing faster than the British one did [fully gone now with Brexit]. Lets hope that this decline doesn’t take vast wars to move it along…

  2. My take on the housing affordability crisis is that given we have high population growth -both due to less kiwis leaving (overseas economic opportunities not being what they were in Australia, UK, EU etc.) and more immigrants arriving, then the housing crisis will be resolved or not depending on how generous or selfish we are as a society in making room for this increasing population.

    This could be reduced down to a technical economic problem of excess demand and unresponsive supply for housing. But I think it is better to characterise the problem as a moral challenge. Because when supply and demand are out of balance it is the poor, the less wealthy, the vulnerable and the lower income groups who get rationed out of having decent housing and being part of the urban based community/society.

    So for me the biggest NZ story on the housing front is the growing concern about those who are missing out on being decently house.

  3. Comparison of emissions per 16k (10m) round trip


    Comparison of emissions per 16,000 (10 metres) round trip

    Comparison of emissions per 16 kilometre (10 minutes) round trip

    Comparison of emissions per 16,000 people (10 miles) round trip

    There is an international standard for writing SI units. Why not use it? Why improvise? What purpose is there in making up your own abbreviation?

    1. I presume you’re complaining to the original source from Chile, rather than the TransportBlog team who just passed it on…?

      While strictly correct, given the context (a typical commute to work), it’s not hard to work out that they meant km and mi.

      1. Oh I’m definitely complaining about whichever semi-educated graphic artist created the original graphic. I have no complaints about transport blog. Yes I did eventually decide that they meant km and miles…. But just…. Why? What is so hard about getting the details right? Should we trust the other info in the graphic?

      1. Your maths seems a bit wonky; a bus emits 20kg of CO2 (0.5 per 40 passengers) so there would need to be fewer than 4 passengers before the amount per passenger was more than the 6kg of a sole-occupant car.

        1. Sorry I totally misunderstood what they were saying. It is complete bollocks anyway. Most cars will do better than 10 litres per 100km now so the 10km round trip would use 1 litre of petrol. Each litre of petrol produces 2.31kg of CO2 so the answer for a car is not 6kg but closer to 2.31 unless you assume a hell of a lot of idling. But the key element in all this type of crap is to assume there is only one person in each car and assume every bus is full. The real occupancy of buses in the UK was measured in 2005 as 9.

        2. And I have misread it again. Why can’t people use proper units? What a complete bastard of a figure. So by k they mean km but by round trip do they mean 16km or 32 km?

        3. The electric vehicles appear to be running on coal-fired power station generated electricity.
          I would suspect that New Zealand electric cars would do much better…..

  4. Bill English has blamed the ‘environment’ as the cause of the housing crisis -probably meaning the environmental protections embedded in the RMA. There is a good article here http://www.citybeautiful.nz/2017/02/is-the-environment-to-blame/, which analyses this. It seems the problem is the way that the RMA defines the environment to include things like amenity, character, aesthetics which aren’t really environmental in the same way as say -water quality or habitat protection is. There is another older article by Stephen Franks which says that the RMA is bad legislation because its effects are unpredictable. It gives too much power to unaccountable decision makers. http://www.stephenfranks.co.nz/banal-business-naivete-on-politics-and-councils/

    Anyway what this means is that the RMA wrt urban areas probably does need some reform and both Labour and National have proposed or enacted National Policy Statements (NPS) on urban areas. But it is not clear that the problem is the environment as the lay person would define the word.

    The government’s NPS is titled the National Policy Statement on Urban Capacity Development, it came into force 1st of Dec 2016. http://www.mfe.govt.nz/node/21486 To my mind it suffers from the same problem as the RMA -great objectives but it lacks a clear prescription on how to achieve these stated goals. Interestingly Bill English doesn’t mention his recently enact RMA amendment in his recent housing outburst. Instead he attacks the environment….

    1. Now totally unable to blame anyone other than his government for the piss poor state of housing, English has given up with honesty all together and blamed the environment. He is a sad deluded little man. And this after Nick Smiths redefining sewers as safe to swim in by when is it, 2050? Mind you Chernobyl would be habitable with this governments redefining what is safe and what is not!

      1. Yep when you think you can solve problems by redefining them away, then you have no credibility to undertake serious reforms, like our built environment needs.

        1. What is really sad is that the Nats consistently talk about Nick Smith as being the “most intelligent” of all their MPs, as he has a Doctorate (a PhD in Engineering, on the Clyde river stop banks I believe). Perhaps, like some people ex-academia, he has got too much of the theoretical smarts, as he certainly doesn’t appear to have too much of the street smarts.

          As a Minister, he has consistently produced disaster after disaster: Housing, Environment, Dairying and Water quality, Failure to deal with Climate Change, allegations from his own party of being “under stress” and “irrational” and “paranoid” etc, defamation case by Osmose in 2010 (timber preservative treatments, who knows what about…), and, according to Wikipedia today, although it scarcely seems credible: “Smith was once hospitalised after inadvertently using paint stripper as mouth wash when a tradesperson accidentally left the product in the bathroom of his Wellington flat.”

          Good grief. Surely he must be on his way out… Well past his “best-by” date. Nothing personal Nick – but it’s time to move on.

  5. I’m no National party apologist, and I consider that they have dogmatically neglected critical demand side factors, but English is still right on this.
    Note: he never blamed the environment. That is shit headline grabbing journalism.
    He effectively blamed over-regulation of the urban environment and protection of the status quo. And he’s right.

    A major part of the root of Auckland’s housing crisis was the ridiculous lack of action in the 2000’s in not upzoning large parts of of Auckland then.
    Getting there in 2017 is inexcusably late.

    A major policy failure. And I don’t really agree with the mantra ‘better late than never’, in this case.

    1. Matt I think the problem is the provocative way Bill English points the finger at the RMA and Councils -this is not a new position we have all heard it before. For 8 years the government has been saying the problem with housing is ‘supply’ and that can *only* be fixed by removing ‘environmental considerations’ from the RMA. Rightly this has not found parliamentary support because a majority of MPs have argued that these environmental considerations also apply to non-urban areas and that they need to remain.

      Because this impossible demand is not agreed to, Bill English argues that nothing else can be done and it is not his fault -it is the environments, Councils, planners fault. Bill English is essentially saying from him this is as good as it gets -there is no other intervention he could make in the marketplace to make housing supply more responsive or to remove excess housing demand.

      1. “Bill English argues that nothing else can be done and it is not his fault……”
        Well, Bill English is an extremely unimaginative man. That’s why he is Prime Minister – he knows how not to frighten the cows in the milking shed, both at home on his farm in Dipton, and in Parliament also, as well as the real “milking grounds” of NZ – i.e. home owners and big business. He is the “safe pair of hands” (read – dull and lacking in charisma), that NZ seems to be happy with (latest most favoured Prime Minister ratings put John Key at 2-3% and Bill already over 30% – oh how easily we are satisfied with mediocrity…).

        Of course, the alternative (i.e. riskier pair of hands) is the T-Rump approach of taking a large gun to everything and blowing it out of the water. The more horrible that Donald gets, the more sane and rational Mr English looks.

        There must be a middle ground, but no one seems to be putting their hand up yet in NZ. Morgan? Peters? Little? Seymour? Turei / Shaw? Dunne?

        1. Guy that was the gist of my article Housing affordability: Reform or Revolution? I think we either choose moderate reform on housing affordability and the built environment (not -no reform Mr English!) or inevitably NZ will head down the track of rising social tensions leading to some sort of smash everything populist politician like Trump. https://medium.com/@brendon_harre/housing-affordability-reform-or-revolution-ad3ac2d896c6#.kt5verc5e

          Also the white paper written by Paavo Monkkonen -Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs is a cracker -well done Kent for putting that up on the reading list.

          California faces housing affordability problems in the likes of LA and San Francisco very similar to New Zealand and Auckland. Both the problems with high house prices, high rents and the nature of its built environment -large expanses of stand alone houses are not that different from what we have over here. The White Paper has many useful insights. I highly recommend it.


        2. I’m not sure if it is factual or merely circumstantial, but it seems to me that there is a greater financial paradigm driving these increasing house prices throughout most of the world. Certainly it is not just focused on NZ, and indeed it does seem to be mainly an Anglo-American sort of effect – house prices have risen mainly to ridiculous levels in cities which are predominantly English-speaking. London, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York etc – a common factor is that the lingua franca is English. Or is it just that Demographia and others bring to our attention only the stories of the English-speaking world? Are house prices just as insane in Montreal or Milan? I wonder. (I do not know).

          Another tack is that excess immigration is actually driving the problem – arguably true and provable – Croatia had good stable house prices until it became a tourist hotspot after the war, and house prices have rocketed so much from Brits etc buying up property that the native Croatians are effectively forced out of their homes (i.e. first home buyers there cannot afford to live in the same areas as their parents). Much the same arguments against incoming property buyers as we are having here.

          Others have proposed that the problem actually lies solely with the baby boomers – so everywhere that was involved in the WW2 and lost soldiers or civilians will have experienced a baby boom after, and that alone is driving the house prices upwards. Presumably therefore only Sweden and Switzerland – and Ireland? would be immune from the threat of rising prices? Certainly Japan now has the opposite problem – perhaps they have hit the end of the baby boom earlier than others, but they have only very restrained price movement as they mainly seem to have too many old people, and – shock, horror – investors in Japan are warned to keep away from property as there is no potential rise in prices there for quite some time.

        3. It is supply and demand. Credit affects demand but it is not the whole story. If it was then all cities in a common currency/finance zone like the US would have similar property booms. This is not the case.

          Demographia is flawed because it doesn’t look much outside the Anglo-world. But much of Europe -such as Germany have fairly stable house prices.

    1. Totally. Somebody please get it in front of key Ministers to show them what freedom looks like to younger people these days (clue: connectivity, not a car).

  6. Comparison of emissions per 16km round trip is misleading.

    When undertaking strenuous excercise, such as cycling or running, people breathe much more heavily and expire more C02 than when they’re at idle (sitting in a bus for example). As such, the figures for cycling and the ebike are a bit misleading, the authors need to compare the amount of C02 used to cycle 16 km, minus the amount that they would expire whilst sitting in a car/bus/train.

    1. and the electric car is dependent on how the electricity was generated ie solar/wind/hydro or gas or coal.
      Being from a Chile site I assume they have used their generating ratio
      From Wikipedia:
      Energy in Chile is dominated by fossil fuels, with coal, oil and gas accounting for 73.4% of the total primary energy. Biofuels and waste account for another 20.5% of primary energy supply, with the rest sourced from hydro and other renewables. (6%)

      NZ is over 80% renewable

      1. More research could have renewable electricity production in Chile at 60% but they appear to export/import electricity so it is hard to work out what the electric car figure is based on.

    2. CO2 produced by respiration is essentially eco-system-neutral in that it derives largely from digestion of agricultural produce – i.e. a bio-fuel*. This contrasts sharply with anything powered by fossil-fuel-burning (including some electricity-generation), which is a one-way carbon transfer from buried deposits to the eco-system.

      *Ok, I neglect here the fossil-component of the food-production and distribution industries as this is largely a function of the way we have chosen to structure things, and of the diets people prefer, rather than a function of whether they use active transport modes or not. Also, the variability in what people eat and how-much they eat does not necessarily correlate with their transport-choices.

      Carbon-emissions from human and animal respiration as a contributor to climate-change I believe are a big red-herring. And this even applies to the cow-belch/methane phenomenon as this also does not add any additional carbon to the eco-system – other than what is once-again emitted through production-practices being unnecessarily fossil-fuel dependent.

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